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Nudging and the problem of lazy irrationality

Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, writing in the New Republic (“Easy Does It:  How to Make Lazy People Do the Right Thing,” 04.09.08, pgs. 20-22), lay out a version of a case more elaborately detailed in their new book of an argument relating to governance as it might be informed by research in behavioral economics.  I’ve just ordered the book (Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Thaler and Sunstein [Yale UP, 2008]) and should stress that my summary of their position relies on the New Republic’s truncated version alone.

Choice architecture is their term for a strategy of design that aims to organize built spaces to nudge individuals into more intelligent behaviors, or at least in more reasonably defensible ones.  As their opening example, which describes how a European economist reduced the airport bathroom consequences of, how to say it, misdirected peeing by painting a small bumblebee near the drain (in effect converting peeing into target practice), illustrates, these design interventions can seem very modest (though the bee trick reduced spillage by 80%).  But Thaler and Sunstein (T/S) are here to call attention to the significantly larger effects, for good or ill, enabled by more thoughtfully making design choices in the contexts of public policy formation.

Their starting point is to note the many behavioral habits that incline us to behave in ways counter to our own best interests.  We buy a second book from Amazon to get the free shipping even though the next purchase sails the bill even higher.  Because we are inertial beings, we fail to change our behavior even when we should (and thus we fail to lose weight or stop smoking even when we know better).  Marketers exploit this fact – they advertise in ways designed to reassure our worst (though for them profitable) instincts.  Better, T/S argue, to set the default choices in ways such that our inertia and irrational preferences will work for our own and the common good.  This, they argue, might improve everything from organ donation rates (set the default to ‘if I express no preference I’m assenting to donate’) to enrollment decisions in the recently adopted federal multi-choice prescription drug benefit.

T/S defend this sort of governmental architecture as a plausible and defensible third way that strikes a balance between open-ended ‘all choices up to you’ capitalism and closed choice state socialism:  “in countless domains, good choice architecture can allow governments to preserve freedom while encouraging people to make wise decisions.”

I must confess that these ideas, as interesting as they are, nonetheless make me squeamish in the same way as those best selling books advising wives to secretly “train” their husbands into better behavior by treating them like puppies.  One both admires the subtle potential effectiveness of these approaches while also wondering if marriages requiring such essentially duplicitous strategies are worth saving, or whether deceptions of this type are consistent with what seems to me the laudable view that marriage is made fraudulent when it stops being a partnership of essentially honest interaction.

Although the policy proposals derived from T/S sound sensible, the very individual inattentiveness that animates them therefore also illuminates their dangers, which (to take it from a libertarian perspective) run the risk of enabling a form of stealth government whose tiny default decisions might end up reengineering social behavior in not altogether desirable ways.  Conservatives often use the example of how tax brackets failing to adjust for inflation (which then become a form of largely invisible tax increases that might never be regularly ratified) to express their concern at a sort of Leviathan-by-stealth.  Whether one likes the fact that tax codes can be designed to channel ever increasing resources to federal operations or not, the example illustrates how seemingly small nudges of the type advocated might over time radically alter national life.

T/S nudge readers to downplay these risks by pointing first to the inevitability of default options, and secondly to the absurdity of foolishly set defaults, both valid points.  But from a libertarian perspective, making government more marginally intelligent, and doing so in a quiet way (e.g., by making changes in largely invisible regulatory drafting), entails considerable danger since government absurdity acts as a healthy cynicism-inducing check on its own expansion.

My point isn’t to defend stupid government, or even, for that matter, a libertarian perspective.  Nor am I trying to read a secret agenda into Thaler and Sunstein that would stealthily enlarge government, since they explicitly say they advocate no such brief.  But the nagging possibility that clever governments or even self-serving and not so clever bureaucrats might use such an approach to create Stepford Citizens lurks always at the edges.  That possibility, even if finally slight, suggests that an important caution on this interesting perspective would be to start by always insisting on the need to openly debate these default-setting decisions, following perhaps the logic of constitutional design (constitutions are also a kind of default-setting document) where changes to the default options must be publicly argued and even perhaps ratified by super majorities.  It does not seem a sufficient response, though it is of course true, to note that however the default is set citizens can always presumably opt out, thus meaning they are equally free in any default scenario.  For without very public deliberative attention to how these options are set, one might not implausibly imagine ever tightening nets of social control that while paternalistically defensible nonetheless rob collective life of a considerable degree of desirable choice making freedom.

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